When I Can’t Breathe
By Pastor Mary McDonald
Eric Garner told police…I can’t breathe. George Floyd told police…I can’t breathe. Both African American men died on camera as police used methods of restraint that led to their death.
I can’t breathe is a phrase that I had, up to weeks ago, only associated with these two American tragedies. But then as the questions…the phone calls…the emails….all good, all well intentioned, all true attempts to try and make it better began to come in, I began to experience something else, something unexpected. As folks asked me questions, expressed their apologies and wept over their personal regrets, I found myself saying I can’t breathe. Not by any means am I suggesting that I was experiencing what Mr. Garner or Mr. Floyd had experienced. I was not being choked to death physically, but I was experiencing a sensation that I had felt before. I just hadn’t connected all the dots. It was anxiety…it was a reliving of trauma and pain. It was a ripping off, of a scab on a wound that struggles to heal. There are times I must confess, when I can’t breathe.
When I think about the time that I was publicly uninvited to the Friday night sleep-over in 3rd grade because the hosting parents found out that I was Black…. I can’t breathe.
When I think about the time I visited the Boone Plantation in Charleston SC and entered one of the tiny slave cabins that still stand on that property and began to wonder if one of my ancestors had been there. Were they owned by that family? Were they tied and beaten on one of those trees? Were they forced to work there with little food, little clothing, and no freedom?
I can’t breathe when I remember the time that my dad took me to the Dairy Queen and there was a little boy and his dad in line ahead of us. The little boy looked at my 8-year-old self and my wonderful daddy and looked at his dad and said, “Daddy, what are they?”
I can’t breathe when I recall a test that I was given when I applied for my first job out of college. It was full of several brain teasers that I had fortunately seen before in some of my ‘just for fun’ time. I was puzzled as to why they were on a test for a customer service job, but answered them. I later learned (they actually hired me) that the test they gave me was the special test… for ‘Blacks’. There was not a test for whites. I also learned that after I aced the test, they quit giving it.
I can’t breathe when I get anxious that my beloved sons, grandsons and nephews come home alive, but also that my beloved son-in-law, who is a white police officer, comes home alive too.
Sometimes, I can’t breathe in the midst of today’s regular reminders of how far we have to go in this nation before we truly honor what God’s word says:
“He has shown you, O man, what is good;
And what does the Lord require of you
But to do justly, To love mercy,
And to walk humbly with your God?
But then I have to remember how far we have come. I cannot move forward, if I am always looking behind me with sorrow and shame…It causes anxiety which Proverbs 12:25 says weighs down my heart!
When I can’t breathe, I have to take my lens of hope and see the Blessed Hope, my lens of the resurrection power in Christ Jesus, and declare that if God be for me who can be against me. I must remember some things about who I am. I have to remember that I am a descendant of those who survived the horrors of the slave ships that crossed the Atlantic, and survived the inhumanity of slavery that tried to tell them that they were property and not people. I am a descendant of those who found a way beyond the limits of Jim Crowism, legal discrimination, and all of the attempts to label us as ‘less than’. Therein lies the reason that we do have to say ‘Black Lives Matter’! Not because other lives don’t matter, but because the roots of slavery still tell the lie that black lives don’t matter.
When I can’t breathe, I have to look around and see that much has changed. The multi-skin tones and hair textures around my Thanksgiving table confirm it. I can truly say, these are my people!
When I can’t breathe, I have to look at my church family and see that the 11 o’clock hour is no longer the most segregated hour of the week. I can say, these are my people!
When I can’t breathe, I must look around my GCI family and see what God is bringing together across cultural, racial, and denominational lines for the Kingdom! I can say, these are my people!
When I can’t breathe, I have to remember that my identity is not in the color of my skin, not in my economic status, nor in the neighborhood in which I grew up, but in who my Heavenly Father is and in who I am in Christ Jesus …….For He whom the Son sets free, is truly free indeed!
Mary McDonald is the Lead Pastor of Holsey Chapel -St. Joseph, MO and a member of our GCI Executive Board.
Adjusting Your Lens
by Dallas Elder
At the beginning of my junior year in high school, I pledged a fraternity. (I’m as old as dirt; they had high-school fraternities and sororities way back then.) They held a party and I took a
date. She was the daughter of a prominent Jewish family in my town. When we arrived and sat down in the house with the rest of the guys and their dates, some senior guys and older alumni began to rail at my date with hateful, disrespectful language because she was a Jew. I was shocked, stunned, and speechless. She stood up, defended herself, justifiably called them rude, and marched out of the house. Still processing what had just happened, I joined her outside. She said, “Why didn’t you stand up for me?” My lame answer was, “I’m just a pledge.” (Pledges served the members. They said, “Jump!” The pledge said, “How high?”) Honestly, I’m not sure under the circumstances, if I would have had the courage to speak up. I was sixteen years old. I wanted to be part of the club. I had no idea this incident could possibly happen. I would have never subjected my date to that abuse. I was totally unaware and inexperienced with that level of prejudice.
All of us view life events through the lens of our culture, history and experience. Because of this tendency, we can be quite near-sighted and have limited perspective on how those events affect others from a different ethnicity, with a different history and divergent experiences. We could help ourselves and our world by adjusting our lens, by trying to understand the elements that contribute to the perspective of others.
On Friday, June 5 I flew through Minneapolis, Minnesota on my way to Florida to minister for the weekend. It was just 11 days following the tragic death of George Floyd at the hand of a white police officer in that city. As I walked through the sparsely populated airport due to the Coronavirus, I came across an image that caught my attention. It was a picture of a black woman with an American flag draped over her shoulders. The caption read: “I don’t feel like I am valued.” It was an art exhibition by Antwon Key, which was featured at the Minneapolis Airport. (The picture on this page is also by the artist. I called him and asked permission to use it. He’s a professor at a university in Massachusetts.)
The American flag is a symbol of our nation and our hard fought freedom. In respect to the flag, we understand that freedom is not free. Many have served in defense of our country and many paid the ultimate price. We remember and honor their sacrifices. In our pledge of allegiance to the flag of the United States of America there is this line, “…one nation, under God, indivisible with liberty and justice for all.” In light of the brutality and the clear injustice of some recent events, coupled with a long list of the hurts of history for African Americans, it is understandable from their experience that they would question the statement of “liberty and justice for all.” If you don’t share the same history and experience, you see the current events differently.
Here is a little history that some of us may not know. There were two centuries of legalized slavery in our nation. From 1877 to 1950 more than 4,400 black men, women and children were lynched by white mobs according to the Equal Justice Initiative. The large majority never had trials. It was vigilante “justice.” Even as late as 1968 there was a lynching in Georgia. This is within many of our lifetimes. The Jim Crow and Black Code laws were passed which supported segregation of whites and blacks. There were separate bathrooms, separated drinking fountains and separate seating areas in restaurants, theaters, etc. The Red Cross segregated blood for transfusions until 1950. White patients could not receive a black person’s blood and a black person could not receive a white person’s blood. It was research by African American doctor, Charles R. Drew, which foiled the notion that the color of our skin somehow gave us different blood. The issue was racial prejudice. The fact is, we all have the same blood and we’re all part of the same race, the HUMAN RACE.
Many of our African American brothers and sisters in our GCI ministry family could share stories of acts of prejudice they’ve personally encountered. So the current acts of injustice reverberate echoes of inequality that further validate: “I don’t feel like I am valued.” It rips off the scabs of the deep wounds of history. The anguish and pain of the past resurface again.
While it may not be your history or experience, what should be our response? Let’s understand that due to troubling events in our nation, we have a part of our ministry family that’s hurting. Let’s be sensitive and supportive. The Apostle Paul gives this admonition about love in action. “Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves. …Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn.” (Romans 12:9-10, 15) There is a grief over these events. There is pain and there is mourning. We may not have words to say, but we can offer sincere Christian empathy. We can acknowledge that our friends are hurting.
We can “bear one another’s burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ.” (Galatians 6:2) It is sharing the burden, to “mourn with those who mourn.” Together we can pray. Together we can process toward healing. This is God’s opportunity to bring us to a greater knowledge and understanding of one another.
“There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for all are one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28) For some, one more lens adjustment may be needed. Let’s focus on our Kingdom Covenant relationships. Let’s view the world through what we know and have experienced in our ministry family, rather than viewing our Kingdom Covenant relationships through the lens of the injustices of a sinful world. Let us resist allowing these events to cast a shadow of dispersion, sow seeds of distrust and erect barriers that have not existed among us before. No kindred group is perfect. But we have endeavored to have Grace Covenant International to be a diverse faith household where every person is welcome, honored, respected, affirmed and valued. In Christ Jesus, every person has equal value.
The Prophet Jeremiah spoke these words that I believe are very applicable for all of us now.
“This is what the Lord says:
“Let not the wise boast of their wisdom or the strong boast of their strength or the rich boast of their riches, but let the one who boasts boast about this: that they have the understanding to know me, that I am the Lord, who exercises kindness, justice and righteousness on earth, for in these I delight,” declares the Lord.” (Jer. 9:23-24)
Let us stand and serve together to model the Kingdom of God and exact its transformation upon this fallen world.
Dallas Elder is the Ministry Director of Grace Covenant International.